In a crisis it is a precious thing to have the support of those who love us. It makes even the worst situation easier to bear if we know we are not alone. The greatest comfort for the Christian is that God is with us, whatever the trial. Even when human help fails, as it sometimes will, we always have the presence of our loving heavenly Father to support us.
Hence it comes as a tremendous shock in reading the accounts of the death of Jesus, the one whom we believe to be, in a unique sense, the Son of God, to encounter the heart-rending words recorded in Matthew 27:46: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ These words are puzzling, disturbing, even frightening. What do they signify?
This cry from Jesus’ lips speaks starkly of his sense of abandonment. We must take it with full seriousness, not attempting to blunt its force as some well-meaning writers do. Jesus does not merely feel abandoned (whilst in fact he is not). In some sense the Saviour was truly forsaken. It is a heart cry that expresses the real agony of God-forsakenness. Jesus uses the words of Psalm 22 that vividly and prophetically depict extreme suffering and that are clearly fulfilled in what he now suffers. These words best express the Saviour’s experience.
Crucifixion entailed great physical and emotional pain. The body was wracked with pain as the victim slowly died of shock and suffocation. As he died he was exposed to the gaze of passers-by, shamed and humiliated. Jesus experienced all this suffering in full measure, but more is involved here. The deepest source of agony is his sense of being forsaken by God. Martyrs have died bravely because of a sense of God’s presence: Jesus cries out because of his sense of God’s absence.
There are, we have to recognise, mysteries here that we cannot fathom and probably never will. We have to maintain that his divine nature could not be abandoned by the Father, otherwise there would be an unthinkable division within the Trinity and the unity of God would be destroyed. It must be his human nature that experiences abandonment (although still upheld by the Spirit – Hebrews 9:14). In a real sense the Father turned his back on his beloved Son, withdrawing the sense of his presence. Note however that even in the depths Jesus still addresses him as ‘my God’, the one to whom he clings.
The fact that Father and Son love each other perfectly indicates that this God-forsakenness was essential to fulfil God’s purpose – nothing else could suffice. The New Testament shows that Jesus’ suffering was necessary to secure salvation for sinners. The wonder of God’s grace is seen here clearly, yet in the most unexpected place. On the cross Jesus was the sin-bearer. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for sinners like us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was the substitute for sinners, the Lamb of God who was taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29). His cry of forsakenness tells us that at the cross Jesus was bearing sin and all its consequences on behalf of his people. He paid the price of redemption for those who deserved divine punishment. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:13 are very specific: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law’. Law-breakers are under the wrath and curse of a holy God. This was symbolised by the three hours of darkness at Calvary (v45). In that darkness Jesus took our curse upon himself. This involved abandonment by the God who cannot look on sin (Habakkuk 1:13). Though he never ceased to love his Son, the Father could not look upon him as he bore our curse. The pure soul of Jesus too was revolted by sin and was in agony at his abandonment, yet he ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). He was a ‘propitiation’ (eg 1 John 4:10) – a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God.
Note Hebrews 12:2 ‘for the joy set before him’. Jesus fulfilled the Father’s will and ‘obtained eternal redemption’ (Hebrews 9:12). Thus his enduring abandonment secured full salvation for his people. In particular the righteous demands of God’s law were satisfied and his wrath and curse were removed from us. Thus ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Jesus carried the entire burden of sin in the darkness of Calvary and we need have no fear of eternal wrath. Though God chastens us for sin, the punishment has been taken for us by Christ. Because Jesus suffered God-forsakenness, God now says to us ‘never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5), a truth to fill us with joy, thanksgiving and confidence in the Lord.